Movies: Top Ten Movies 2018
Black Panther changed Hollywood for the better to earn top spot on 2018’s list, but storytellers sought to pry our weary eyes open and see past preconceptions through a broad range of protagonists that transcended expectation.
TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2018
Won’t You Be My Neighbour?
Isle of Dogs
By Katherine Monk
The bean counters are happy: 2018 marked a much-needed boost to the bottom line, with a seven per cent rise in domestic (Canada-U.S.) box-office over the previous year, resulting in a record-breaking $11.9 billion total. A handful of big movies made big money, with Black Panther ($700 million), Avengers: Infinity War ($678 million), Incredibles 2 ($608 million) and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($416 million) leading the pack, and accounting for about one quarter of the headline haul.
The year was so robust for the big players, even films deemed duds by many critics were still winners at the wicket. To wit, Venom made $213.2 million for the #10 spot overall, while Solo: A Star Wars Story inched ahead for #9 with $213.7 million in sales.
So hurray for Hollywood. They needed some good news in a year that offered some disappointments overseas, with U.S. films no longer dominating the Chinese market. Yet, while Tinseltown made some fantastic pieces of entertainment this year, it wasn’t the big shiny toys that turned up on my top-ten list.
Ryan Coogler’s transformative Black Panther earned the top spot of the year, not because it was a gorgeously realized adaptation of comic book myth, but because it proved how powerful these costumed heroes are to our collective culture. By seeing the Other — or the unexpected — in a familiar genre that we know and love, we shortcut the distrust of a different narrative expectation. We relax, accept, experience and potentially empathize with someone we once perceived as a threat. My list reflects a surprising range of protagonists, and perhaps, a latent desire among storytellers to pry open our weary eyes and see past preconceptions. To see the truth, and nothing but the truth: Forever flawed yet seeking perfection, our human drama reflected with heart, soul and a built-in potential for heroic redemption.
1. Black Panther: Black Panther is the percussion blast we needed, so tip your hat to Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station), the director and co-writer of this thoroughly modern classic that addresses the deep fault lines in American society without compromising action movie fundamentals. In fact, the action may be what gives Coogler such leeway because it’s a huge distraction from the deeper issue of African-American identity, which is the deep vein that gives Black Panther its diamond claws and proves Hollywood formula is so powerful, it’s fully able to assimilate and transcend our fears of Other.
2. Vice: Adam McKay (The Big Short) delivers the best script of the year with his deep dive into the silent world of Dick Cheney, the shadowy Vice-President under George W. Bush — delivered warm and greasy as a piece of fried chicken by Sam Rockwell — in this witty, surprisingly fun, and perfectly chilling piece of fact-based fiction. McKay’s inventive design that links an ordinary American male’s own life to Cheney’s global ambitions brings an echo of a Shakespearean chorus to go along with the epic tragedy. Christian Bale’s performance as the wily power-grabber behind a dull veneer isn’t just prize-worthy, combined with Amy Adams’s upright embodiment of Lynne Cheney, it’s a master class in how to make even the uglier side of a character feel admirable by making them earnest.
3. Boy Erased: Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, Boy Erased tells the story of one man’s coming-out-journey in a family rooted in fundamentalist beliefs. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this poignant drama from director-actor Joel Edgerton is that it never makes it about religion, or an argument about Biblical interpretation.This is a movie about how we choose to treat each other, and how we choose to solve problems. It’s not a movie about Christianity, but it affirms the power of forgiveness and our endless capacity for love. This is not a movie about being gay, but about being who you are. Not every storyteller can find the universal in the seemingly specific, but Edgerton and the talented cast — lead by Lucas Hedges, and including Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe — offer a series of revelations by finding individual truths.
4. The Favourite: Yorgos Lanthimos (Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster) is easily one of the strangest and most adventurous filmmakers of our day because he is entirely unfastened to narrative convention. Lanthimos is fascinated by human communication, and how easily emotions are torn apart by mere social norms — be it the pressure to couple in The Lobster, or the risk of assuming a godlike role (as a parent or as a doctor) in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, Lanthimos creates a whole new layer of meaning between the hoops and bustles of Queen Anne’s court (early 1700s) by exploring and exposing the all-too subversive brands of female communication. Olivia Coleman rules the frame as Queen Anne — an insecure and vulnerable monarch broken by 17 failed pregnancies — while Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone find all the backstabbing drama and winking sexual conquests of women seeking personal agency and power in the big man’s world.
5. Won’t You Be My Neighbour? In the first month Mr. Rogers took to the air in 1968, it addressed the war in Vietnam and racial segregation — with puppets and a baby pool. By 1969, Fred Rogers was testifying before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on behalf of public television. And you thought he was just the goofy fella in the coloured cardigans. Thanks to Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), we get the full Rogers in this new documentary portrait. Taking us right down to the literal and proverbial Speedo, Neville unzips the nondescript knitwear to show us the side of Fred Rogers we always suspected was there,yet failed to acknowledge. Won’t You Be My Neighbour? opens the door to every bit of the pasteboard kingdom and pokes its fingers into the puppets that inhabited North America’s collective childhood.
6. Roma: Alfonso Cuaron’s doesn’t just offer up a piece of his childhood in this stunning black and white art film that chronicles growing up in Mexico City in the ‘60s and ‘70s under the watchful eye of his family’s housekeeper. He shares his earliest inspirations and formative experiences that clearly shaped his creative perspective, from cheesy Hollywood science-fiction to a growing awareness of class disparity. Amateur and newcomer Yalitza Aparicio takes on the central role of a domestic servant who becomes central caregiver to a family moving through its own transformation. Both a lyrical ode to the past and a trenchant comment on the distribution of wealth in western society, Roma takes its name from the affluent neighbourhood of Cuaron’s childhood, yet evokes the catacombs of ancient empires.
7. Eighth Grade: Bo Burnham’s debut feature is a marvel that takes us into the turbulent inner world of an eighth grader, a girl named Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher). Kayla is addicted to her phone, is terrified of making social gaffes, and desperate to be liked by others. She’s the epitome of the alternate human species called “teenage girls” — deeply flawed, impossible to console, convinced of an as-yet undiscovered genius talent and entirely dependent on outside affirmation. She’s not all that sympathetic as a character because she can be so impossibly moody, but in Fisher’s able hands, she’s so believably flustered and unsure, she feels undeniably real and accessible. Coming-of-age stories can stumble into one slop pail after another, betraying the acid bath of maturation, but Eighth Grade captures the strange chill of adulthood without precious preaching or arty conceit.
8. First Reformed: Paul Schrader clearly still carries the burden of his Calvinist upbringing. It’s tattooed across the veiny forearm of just about everything he’s done, from American Gigolo and Affliction to The Canyons, Dominion and Adam Resurrected. Only in First Reformed, he’s using a surgical blade to get under his own skin, and examine the inky scars. Ethan Hawke acts as the razor-sharp point of inquisition through the character of Toller, a bellwether for the times. Toller is the priest in a small town in Upstate New York. He’s dealing with his own personal turmoil as well as church politics, but he’s a caring and compassionate man who honestly believes in goodness and hope. It’s why he became a priest. Yet, when he meets a young couple with a compelling moral dilemma, he’s yanked into a very uncomfortable place. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and wants to keep her baby. Yet, her husband, an environmental activist, can’t bear the thought of bringing a child into a world hurtling toward disaster. Schrader says he needs to make films of the moment — if only to understand the times a little better. So this is probably the most articulate response we’ve seen to the current Zeitgeist. Whether you see it as a tragedy or an act of mercy will very much depend on your faith, or perhaps as Schrader may put it, your wilful denial of reality.
9. Isle of Dogs: Wes Anderson does not want to grow up. But he had to. I think it’s where the heavy sigh of melancholy in his movies comes from: the diminished scale of the grown-up world, where there is no room for mystery or magic, and life becomes a repetitive treadmill of experience until you die. There’s always a looming sense of tragedy, whether he’s making The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yet, sliding on the veneer of eye-pleasing production design and a deadpan sense of humour, Anderson never sinks into the frozen abyss. He plays on the thin layer of ice above and turns the whole thing into a game. Best played by members of his peer group who can reference Peanuts, claymation Christmas specials, Akira Kurosawa,1970s board games, Lassie and Thunderbirds with equal fluency, Anderson’s jeu takes slapshots at the existential condition by simply having fun with it. Isle of Dogs is a perfect example of Anderson’s entire oeuvre because it takes grown-up themes — political corruption, personal abandonment and all kinds of pollution— and transplants them into a toy-sized set with talking dogs, immediately diffusing the menacing force of our human reality by making it innately playful and small.
10. BlacKkKlansman: A KKK-comedy? Yes, it’s a controversial idea, but Spike Lee has never shied away from the powder-kegs of American prejudice and BlacKkKlansman features truly revolutionary content. The true story of Ron Stallworth, one of the first African-American police officers in Colorado Springs, Lee’s film chronicles Stallworth’s successful bid to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan — just by picking up the phone. At every turn, the truth makes fiction shrivel, but with John David Washington and Adam Driver driving the black and white into the thick of racial tensions, Lee finds a way to keep the political pedal to the metal while steering clear of the abyss of hate by taking a detour through the manicured suburbs of American ambivalence, where we can feel the speed bumps designed to slow the traffic of progress.
The list ends here, but a few significant stragglers deserve mention for the same reasons as the preceding ten: They pulled down the walls of genre to take a deeper peek into our collective soul. So honourable mentions to Spider-Man: Enter the Spiderverse, 22 July, Tully, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Star is Born, Gloria Belle and The Wife — all of which could have made the cut. The same can’t be said for this year’s crop of raspberry-worthy disappointments, so I’ll just say thanks but no thanks to orgiastic puppets in The Happytime Murders, Bruce Willis in Eli Roth’s selfish Death Wish, Robert Zemeckis’s disturbing dollhouse in Welcome to Marwen, and the odiferous active verb that defined The Spy Who Dumped Me.
Main image: Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan star in Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s seamless integration of comic book form and political content that transformed Hollywood for the better.
THE EX-PRESS, January 1, 2019